“Teaching can make your heart beat faster”

Image: Jacobs Foundation
Image: Jacobs Foundation

Teaching can be a stressful profession. In the Netherlands, one teacher in five reports symptoms of emotional exhaustion, and in some countries up to 50% of teachers leave the profession within five years of entering their careers. Given the vital role teachers play in the lives of their students, a lot of research has been devoted to the negative effects of teachers’ emotional exhaustion on their students’ motivation, engagement, and achievement.

Less is known about the factors that contribute to teachers’ emotional exhaustion and how we can counteract these factors and foster teachers’ well-being. Over the last decades, research has started to highlight the importance of teacher-student relationships for teacher well-being. The opportunity to work with students is often a reason for teachers to enter the profession, but interactions with students can also be challenging, and they consume a considerable portion of a teacher’s working day.

If problems occur in this context, even if they are relatively minor, they can spill over from one lesson to the next and even to subsequent days, ultimately resulting in teachers’ emotional exhaustion.

Because prior research on the emotional consequences of teacher-student interaction has relied mainly on questionnaire data, we still know very little about how social and emotional processes unfold during a lesson. In my dissertation, I therefore focused on what actually happens from moment to moment in the interaction between teacher and students and how this relates to teachers’ physiological responses and emotional outcomes.

This is not only relevant for our general understanding of these processes; ultimately, teacher education and interventions will need to focus on this interactional level to improve teachers’ and students’ emotional experiences in the classroom.

To gain insight into moment-to-moment teaching processes, I observed eighty secondary-school teachers during one of their lessons. I coded changes in their interpersonal  interactions with students based on video recordings and analyzed continuous heart rate measurements taken as they were teaching, as an indicator of their affective response to the situation. Immediately after the lesson, teachers reported on their current and retrospective emotions.

So what part of the interaction did these teachers find most challenging? Actually, the main finding was that teachers varied widely, both in their behavior and in their affective responses. Nonetheless, most teachers’ heart rates were relatively high when they played a dominant role in the interaction (high interpersonal agency) or when they were unfriendly to their students (low interpersonal communion). Interestingly, teachers with a relatively high heart rate while showing dominant behavior reported more positive emotions after the lesson, which suggests that teachers interpret it as a ‘’mastery experience’’ when they play a dominant role.

“Although teaching is hard work (and often increases a teacher’s heart rate), investing in a warm as well as demanding relationship with students is well worth the effort.”

Negative emotions were most likely to be reported when a teacher had a relatively high heart rate while exhibiting friendly behavior. It may be that these teachers were only simulating friendliness; doing so might require considerable effort (as indicated by the increased heart rate) and therefore result in negative emotions. Processes like this have been described as teachers’ “emotional labor.”

It is important to make teachers aware of their (often implicit) behavioral and physiological responses in specific interactions, because they may have huge consequences not only for their immediate emotions, but also for their long-term well-being. Given the large differences between teachers’ experiences, looking at teacher-specific correlations between heart rate and interpersonal behavior might be a fruitful way to personalize teacher training and development. Although teaching is hard work (and often increases a teacher’s heart rate), investing in a warm as well as demanding relationship with students is well worth the effort.


The European Association for Research on Learning and Instruction (EARLI) is an international networking organisation for junior and senior researchers in education. Representing over 2000 members in more than 60 countries, EARLI is the biggest educational association in Europe.

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